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Friday 18 August 2017

Cullen wants report into athletics row

Taxpayer may be left to foot the bill after wrangle

Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

The Government is to seek an urgent report on the circumstances surrounding an extraordinary court battle involving Athletics Ireland, its former chief executive and the Irish Sports Council which could cost the taxpayer up to €800,000.

After four bruising days in the High Court, which damaged both sporting bodies, the State has been left nursing a huge legal bill as well as having to find money to pay hefty compensation.

The legal bill raises the spectre of either the taxpayer having to defray the costs or money being diverted away from athletics development to meet the bill.

Having initially set out their intention to vigorously defend an unfair dismissal claim by former CEO of AI, Mary Coghlan, the two sporting bodies agreed a settlement four days into the hearing.

The Sunday Independent understands that the final cost to the taxpayer of a saga which has been rumbling on since last summer will be up to €800,000.

At a time when sports funding is being cut year on year, as the Government tackles its enormous budget deficit, there will be fears within sporting circles as to the knock-on effect of this case.

Only last month, AI received just over €400,000 from the sports council to fund its elite athletes for the year, so the cost of this case is effectively two years of funding for Ireland's best track and field stars such as Derval O'Rourke, David Gillick and Olympic silver medallist Olive Loughnane.

On top of a settlement to Ms Coghlan, thought to be between €130,000 and €300,000 the two associations must also cover the legal costs for both sides, which are understood to have exceeded €600,000.

Ms Coghlan had claimed that her dismissal by AI in June 2009 was invalid, and that she was defamed by association president Liam Hennessy in front of an Oireachtas committee. She also claimed that the Irish Sports Council (ISC) had put pressure on the AI to fire her.

The cost and outcome of the case is now likely to heap pressure on the Irish Sports Council's CEO John Treacy and its chairman, Ossie Kilkenny. During evidence, Ms Coghlan told the High Court that Mr Treacy and Mr Kilkenny had made it clear to her from day one of her tenure at AI that they were unhappy with her appointment. She also alleged Mr Kilkenny had referred to her as "a cancer" in the association.

A spokesperson for Arts, Sport and Tourism Minster Martin Cullen said he is expecting an "urgent report" from the sports council on the matter. "While the minister has not seen the terms of this settlement he would be extremely concerned if monies that would otherwise be invested in meeting the aims of the Government's policy on sport had to be used to meet the cost of legal settlements," she added.

The case opened last Thursday week, on the eve of the departure of 15 Irish athletes to this weekend's World Indoor Athletics Championships in Qatar. Much of the case centred on the contents of specific emails, letters and meetings. One of these concerned a meeting of members of the ISC and AI on November 12, 2008, where Mr Kilkenny said "we must remove the cancer within".

While Ms Coghlan argued this was a direct reference to her, Mr Kilkenny had pleaded it was meant to refer to issues that the ISC had with AI. However, in court, four directors of AI testified that they understood the remark to be a direct reference to Ms Coghlan.

It was also claimed in court that the ISC had withheld the AI's funding last year in an attempt to force the association to dismiss Ms Coghlan.

Sunday Independent

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